ELIZABETH, United States, Sep 20 – Shock reigns supreme in the working-class neighborhood where Afghan-American Ahmad Khan Rahami apparently kept a low profile while allegedly plotting to bomb New York and New Jersey.
Behind yellow police tape, FBI agents and police dogs inspected the Rahami family restaurant on Monday where the 28-year-old suspect had worked in the New Jersey town of Elizabeth.
Worshippers at nearby mosques said they had never seen Rahami pray there and were quick to condemn his alleged crimes, insisting that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims were good in Elizabeth.
Locals knew First American Fried Chicken and its blue awning well but knew little about Rahami, who was discreet and “not on the radar of local law enforcement,” said Mayor Chris Bollwage.
The FBI was counting on its interrogation to determine if and how Rahami was able to build without raising suspicion bombs that wounded 29 people in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood late Saturday. He was reportedly charged with attempting to murder police officers.
Rahami was being treated in hospital for a gunshot wound to the leg sustained during a shootout with police. Images beamed across the nation of a bearded man wearing a T-shirt, his bloodied arm wrapped in a bandage as he was loaded into an ambulance while handcuffed to a stretcher.
But the man who led US police on a frenetic manhunt over the weekend left no strong impression on his neighborhood, a mostly Hispanic area where many do not speak English and filled with one-story homes.
The Rahami family, who have lived here since 2002, was one of only a handful in that immediate zone known to be Muslim. The Rahami children attended the nearby public school.
“I’ve seen him around at ceremonies, like Eid (holidays), festivals, over the last two or three years. I cannot say that I saw him here,” said Salaam Ismial, a social worker at Masjid al-Hadi mosque.
“What happened is not in any fashion a representation of the Muslim community or the Muslim faith. He is a sick, deranged young man,” he said.
“That kind of ideology didn’t come from anything taught by any mosque that I know of. These ideas come from political persuasion through the Internet.”
Hassan Abdellah, who heads Dar-ul-Islam mosque, one of New Jersey’s biggest, said Elizabeth was “in shock.”
“Most people who get involved in this they don’t really frequent the mosque anyway,” he added.
Abdellah, who has been part of the mosque since it was founded in 1992, insisted that no event had caused tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities here, not even the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“We treat our neighbors kindly, we feed the poor. So hopefully people will remember all the good things that we do,” he said.
Now, Ismial said he planned to call the mayor and request police protection in front of mosques “just to keep the peace.”
Many of the neighbors refused to speak to the media.
Others spoke more about Mohammad Rahami, the father, who owned the restaurant where his sons worked, as well as an adjoining brick home.
‘Half Israeli, conversation over’
A local police source said the elder Rahami was present when police came to the house early Monday.
That’s the last known address of the younger Rahami, according to local media.
“Everybody in the neighborhood knew the dad. He’s very rude, very much to himself. You would just buy food and leave,” said a man in his 20s who works at a nearby dry cleaners and asked to remain anonymous.
A 41-year-old man who lives just steps away and gave his name only as Miguel recalled stopping by the restaurant after a night of drinking.
“I was eating and talking with all of them (from the restaurant). We were joking around. There was the father, the young kid and the guy they showed on TV,” he said.
“And then they asked me: ‘what’s your nationality?’ I said ‘I’m half Mexican, half Israeli.’ Conversation over.”
In 2011, the Rahami family filed a lawsuit against the city of Elizabeth and local police, accusing them of discrimination in forcing the chicken restaurant to close by 10:00 pm.
The suit accused police of unlawfully discriminating against the family between 2009 and 2011 on the basis of their faith and ethnicity, causing pain, suffering and “severe emotional distress.”
Neighbors complained about the restaurant’s noise and late hours. The suit was settled in 2012 in the city’s favor.